A writing student sent the following message to me and some of her comrades this week:
I just read an article in the New Yorker about the end of the personal essay—did you all see it? And what did you think? Memoir really interests me but am I too late???http://www.newyorker.com/If you haven't read the article, please, go ahead and skim it. I will wait.
Let me tell you what happened to me when I read it:
Reading it made me angry. Angry at the need to declare something is over. Angry at the assumption that all personal essays are alike. Angry at the conflation between sensationalization/confession versus reflection/contemplation. Not angry at my student - let me be clear - but at the industry, and the way people write about it.
Despite not finding a NYT post from a couple of years back about how memoir was over as a genre, or that boom done, I know I have read at least one other such opinion piece, and they tire me. Why do people need to stick in a fork and decide something is done? Good grief. The only thing done is time, and not even that is as done as we sometimes wish it were.
Finally, what this opinion piece does is lump together a bunch of different kinds of personal essays - crisis pieces, especially - and completely does not include very deep and powerful examples of steady, long-running people working in this genre. People who survive fashion, who are dedicated to deep exploration.
It has a mocking tone, and basically says, "Good riddance! Good riddance to self-absorbed confessionals, body horror, etc!" Fine. That's how that person feels. But that's not all personal essay is, and using that broad a term both dismisses a much steadier and more powerful and long lasting wave, as well as showing the ignorance of the author and their need to be dismissive. Which is popular in literary criticism, and pisses me off.
P.S. See this post a month ago from NYT on book-length memoirs which are grounded in direct experience and do not include any crisis or confession quality to them. It's interesting that the person's inquiry is about wanting memoir without catastrophe; most people writing even about nature, which the author points to, can't help but find catastrophe there, too. But this is code for the kinds of things the writer of the first article is mocking.
Here are some of my (hopefully more nuanced) answers:1. When it comes to writing, the personal essay itself is not over. Not at all. Personal essays have been around for centuries and will be around for centuries more. The form will change, what we associate with personal essays will change, but trying* to explain personal experience will continue for a long time. Which leads me to this point:
2. If one's main concern is about fashion - e.g. what is booming or not - in publishing, then one will get very tired very fast of following what is hot. If personal essay's popularity were really measured accurately, we'd see it pop up and down and up and down over the last few decades.If you are worried about whether it will get published, frankly, it either will or won't. Something being in fashion/booming/popular actually does not increase your chances of being published when you write in that genre - in fact, popularity gluts the market and makes it all wash out in terms of quality and possibility. Speaking of non-glutting possibilities:
3. When it comes to publishing, there will always, always be journals, websites, books, publishers who want personal essay. Always. Your style may be out of fashion, out of trend, but you'll find a place where it fits in. Or not. Which leads me to this final point:
4. If one wants to write personal essay, then write personal essay. Really. I know you might be tired of this in this blog. I am forever focusing on process over product. But the fact is, if you are hoping by the time you want to get something out in the market that it will be part of a trend, you are on an endless hamster wheel. Write what you want to write, what you NEED to write, and write it really fucking well. Work on the craft, again and again. If you want to get published and not just write, submit, get rejected, submit, get rejected**, and eventually, something will get accepted. Or not. That's how it goes. How it's always gone. If we hope publication will bring us satisfaction, we will put up with feeling miserable during the process. While writing and revising are far from easy, we have to learn to love that challenge. Then, by the time we are done, it was worth it even if no one ever looks at the damn thing, much less publishes it.
Ok. My rant is done. Again, it is not against my students, but at the criticism industry that needs to ratchet up mockery and dismissal, and narrow down what's available in order to get a laugh or make a shocking headline. Sigh. Nothing is done. Really. Not ever. So keep writing your memoir/personal essay. Don't give a shit about fashion. Only work on orienting your writing towards what sells or will appeal to an audience once you are clear about what it is you need to write. And even then, when you work on your bend and approach, do not base it on the assumption that your attempts will get you publication, or publication will get you money or happiness. Love the process. There's really nothing else.
*Essay comes from the french essayer, which means "to try"
** Always make sure your voice/tone/content matches the publication you submit to. Don't send blindly. But look wide and deep for niche and small places that might just fit your bill, and you theirs. Start there, and grow.